A funny thing happened to Chrysler during its various phases of ownership in recent years; it lost its large commercial van. When it was part of DaimlerChrysler, you could buy a Dodge Sprinter van, a tall diesel-powered van out of Europe that became very popular.
But when Daimler-Benz said “buh-bye” to its American division and Chrysler had to find a new suitor, the Sprinter got yanked from Dodge’s U.S. product lineup. Mercedes-Benz dealers now sell the van with their own logo on the grill.
And so, Dodge dealers (who pretty much all sell the somewhat new Ram truck brand – there are no more trucks branded as Dodges) had to watch all the commercial van business go elsewhere.
Enter Fiat, Chrysler’s new partner and eventual full-fledged owner. Ram dealers now have the new ProMaster van to sell to small business owners and large company fleets alike. Looking a bit like a Sprinter, the ProMaster is a reworked Fiat Ducato van, which has been on sale in Europe for some time.
There’s no mistaking this new van’s European posture and style. It sits quite upright and tall, particularly the high-roof version. The seating position is tall as well, especially compared to the domestic vans like the Ford E-Series and Chevrolet Express.
That high, slab-sided design is what gives it great appeal as a working-class vehicle. The sides are nearly completely vertical, as opposed to having a slight curve to them. That allows all kinds of flexibility when it comes to mounting equipment racks. Ram dealers will be able to configure the ProMaster to suit a particular business’ needs.
The other thing that gives this van such a generous and useable cargo hold is that it’s front wheel drive. No drive axle at the rear means that the floor sits a bit lower. The ProMaster is also a unibody design without a separate frame, furthering the maximization of interior room.
And a clever hinge system for the rear doors allows them to open 260 degrees for easier loading. Chrysler’s press information for the new van notes that these doors (as well as the design of the sliding side door) make it easier for a forklift to load pallets. I had neither a forklift nor pallets at my disposal during my time with the ProMaster, but I found the doors very functional nonetheless.
I also found the big Ram van to be very maneuverable, despite its huge size in the particular long-wheelbase configuration that Chrysler sent me to test. The vehicle’s turning radius is absolutely amazing, which is obviously a plus for the people who will be backing these vans into and out of places like crowded loading docks.
Power comes from either Chrysler’s Pentastar 3.6 liter V6 gasoline engine, or a 3.0 liter four cylinder turbo-diesel, the latter of which should be a hit with fleet operators. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
In addition to being available in a variety of lengths, wheelbases and roof heights, the ProMaster is also offered in what’s known as a “cutaway” configuration. In other words, with just the cab portion of the body, and a rolling chassis that can be equipped with a box for moving van or ambulance configurations. I’d have to imagine the RV industry also has plans for this starting point too.
This should be an interesting year for the commercial van business. Ford will join the Euro-style van race with the introduction of its large Transit Van (and introduce a new design for its compact Transit Connect), which will eventually send the long-in-the-tooth E-Series packing. That will leave General Motors with the only traditional “American” style vans: The Chevrolet Express and GMC Savanna.
You should start seeing ProMasters in increasing numbers wherever you see people on the job, at building sites and the parking lot of the local Home Depot. A new, slightly funky-looking cargo van via Chrysler’s Italian partner Fiat.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz